It can be a challenge for veterans who served on ships near Vietnam to prove disability due to Agent Orange because they must prove they served in Vietnam. Service in Vietnam means stepping foot on land or serving on inland waterways at some point. Some ships sent went into the inland waterways or into the coastal waterways where they sent small boats to ashore. The VA keeps a list of ships that meet the "service in Vietnam" requirement. Veterans who can prove through their military records that they were aboard one of these ships can satisfy this eligibility requirement.
Veterans who served without ever having "boots on the ground" and whose ships did not enter an inland waterway are referred to as "blue water veterans." Service on ships that anchored in the harbors off the coast of Vietnam typically does not qualify a veteran for Agent Orange-related disability. Consequently, blue water veterans are often effectively denied disability compensation.
It is alleged that there is no Department of Defense evidence of Agent Orange exposure when the herbicide was sent to Vietnam on boats, when aircraft that flew over Vietnam were serviced on ships, or when Agent Orange was used or tested on ships. The VA will not even make an effort to obtain any such evidence for a blue water veteran.
Ways to Prove Service-Connected Disability
Veterans who can prove that their ship landed in Vietnam or traveled on Vietnam's inland waterways are eligible for "presumptive service connection." Presumptive service connection is available to Vietnam veterans with various Agent Orange-related diseases, such as Parkinson's disease or Hodgkin's disease. They don't need to prove that they were exposed to Agent Orange while in military service; instead, the exposure is "presumed" to have occurred.
To qualify for Agent Orange presumptive service connection, a veteran must show:
- military service in Vietnam during the period of January 9, 1962 to May 7, 1975
- current diagnosis of one of the diseases, or residuals of one of the diseases, that the VA recognizes as linked to Agent Orange exposure
- a disability rating for the recognized disease of at least 10% or higher, and
- for certain diseases (like peripheral neuropathy), that the illness developed within a certain time period after the last day of service in Vietnam.
Even though technically veterans can be eligible by proving that their current illness was caused by Agent Orange exposure (in other words, proving a direct service connection), there are roadblocks to proving this.
Does Your Ship Qualify you for Presumptive Service Connection?
Check to see if the ship(s) you served on went into the inland waterways of Vietnam or into the coastal waters by viewing the VA's Ship List. If so, check your military records (read about how to obtain military records) for proof that you served aboard the ship. If you can prove you were on a ship that operated on an inland waterway, no further documentation is necessary. But if your ship was in the close coastal waters, had crew who went ashore, or docked in Vietnam, you will have to provide a written statement that you went ashore. If you do not provide this statement, you will be ineligible for presumptive service connection.
What if your ship doesn't qualify?
Exceptions for Certain Diseases
There is a special rule permitting presumptive service connection for certain diseases based merely on service in Vietnam without a requirement of stepping foot on land or serving in inland or coastal waterways. Blue water veterans can be eligible for presumptive service connections for these conditions:
- non-Hodgkins lymphoma
- chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and
- small-cell lymphocytic lymphoma.
VA Duty to Assist
If a blue water veteran states in an application for disability compensation that his or her ship docked in Vietnam or spend significant time in the waters close to Vietnam, the VA must investigate this claim. To do so, the VA will request assistance from the Army and from the Joint Services Records Research Center (JSRRC). The veteran must provide a 60-day timeframe within which the ship was "in Vietnam." JSRRC will review ship logs and ship histories to confirm if the ship was indeed there.
Do Your Own Research
Oftentimes blue water veterans do their own research to try to prove their ship service qualifies as "service in Vietnam." The VA provides some guidance for how to get your ship added to the list. Since the VA won't do this research for you, you need to submit evidence that your ship qualifies before applying for disability compensation.
Evidence that your ship was in the inland waterways, coastal waters, or sent boats ashore can often be found in ship logs. Ship logs can be requested from the National Archives. You can call the military records reference desk at (301) 837-3510 or request records online using eVetRecs.
This is a painstaking and laborious process. Often hundreds of these logs must be reviewed to find helpful information, and sometimes notes about latitude and longitude measurements must be mapped out.
Information about ship histories can also be of help and can be found by using the volunteer-created Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association also provides many helpful resources.
Efforts have been made in Congress to recognize that the seas around Vietnam are part of Vietnam for the purposes of presumptive service connection. The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2013 (HR 543) was introduced in the House of Representatives in February of 2013 and is presently in Committee. You can track the progress of this bill here.
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